Master and Commander

Peter Weir's Master and Commander

That war is hell must always be a profounder fact than war is romance; nevertheless, war goes on being romance. Combine this with the further facts that the sea is romance, that the past is romance, and that the British imperial past holds peculiar romantic appeal for a large sector of the American middle class, and you can understand the opportunity Peter Weir seized when he undertook the adaptation of two volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey sea saga. To say that Weir has made the most of his opportunity is an understatement. The movie’s portmanteau title, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, may be clumsy, but the film itself is sinewy and graceful. Like most romances, it sings an ode to heroism and etherealizes brutal facts without ever quite overlooking those facts. It has a conscience about what war does to frail humanity, but that conscience never punctures the hero worship that’s the heartbeat of this entertainment.

Curiously, in this tale of Aubrey and crew pursuing a deadly French man-of-war to the equator, there are two heroes being worshiped, yet one of them never appears on screen. Lord Horatio Nelson looms over the action as a sort of patron saint of the British navy battling Napoleon in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Since the movie’s other (visible) hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, had contact with Nelson, Aubrey’s barely pubescent midshipmen beg to be told what the...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.